Three teenage girls from a local high school in Johannesburg - South Africa's economic hub - were gathered in a local NGO office on Wednesday after watching an educational play on HIV/AIDS. The topic of discussion had generated a heated debate among the girls, and they were eager to share their thoughts on "sugar daddies".
"Girls my age are doing it, for sure. It's not a big deal anymore. I know it's not a good idea, but if you're getting everything you want from him, you don't think about other things," said 17-year-old Busi, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Although they were reluctant to talk about their experiences, all the girls knew someone who was involved with an older man. These older sexual partners are referred to as sugar daddies, but this type of relationship is anything but sweet.
Sexual relationships between older men and teenage girls play a large role in the high HIV infection rate among young women in sub-Saharan Africa. But for the people involved in these relationships, the risk of HIV/AIDS is not a priority.
RISK OF HIV/AIDS UNDERMINED
The cross-generational relationship phenomenon is not limited to South Africa, the Population Services International (PSI) Kenya research manager, Margaret Waithaka, told IRIN.
"This is a hidden thing - people are very silent about it. But even though it may be hard to quantify in terms of numbers, it's very high," she said.
According to a PSI study of cross-generational relationships, between 12 percent and 25 percent of young women's partners in sub-Saharan Africa were 10 or more years their senior.
In Kenya, among men over the age of 30 who reported non-marital partners, 25 percent had a partner at least 10 years younger.
To make matters worse, young African women are more vulnerable to HIV infection. Studies have found that HIV infection in women aged 15 to 24 is significantly higher than for men in the same age group.
The study also found that most participants underestimate the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS.
For the majority of the young women interviewed, the biggest risk was discovery and possible subsequent violence from partners' wives, followed by violence from disapproving parents and same-age boyfriends.
Pregnancy and emotional abandonment by older men and the girls' family members were cited as additional fears. They assessed the risk of STIs and HIV/AIDS as lowest of all and assumed the men were faithful to them and their wives.
For the older men, the biggest threat was the discovery of the affair by their wives and the subsequent breakdown of the family.
Condom use was low, the study reported. "These young women are not in a position to negotiate condom use with older men. Girls are still embarrassed about using them, so if a man does not initiate it, it becomes difficult," Waithaka said.
During focus group discussions, the girls explained that they would rather give in to their older partners' insistence on not wearing condoms than lose the benefits of these relationships.
CASH, CAR AND CELLPHONE
Shardia Nania, a volunteer counsellor for the Family Life Centre - a South African NGO offering life skills training at schools in disadvantaged communities - attributes this practice to an "increasingly materialistic society".
"Schoolgirls see older wealthier men with the 'three Cs' [a car, a cellular phone and cash] as an avenue where they will be able to attain material goods," she told IRIN.
Cross-generational relationships are often transactional in nature. The girls get clothes, school fees and gifts in return for a sexual relationship.
"Of course the guys always have money, otherwise there's no point. My friend got a nice Nokia 8310 [cellular phone] for her birthday," said Busi. The girls agree that saying 'no' to an older man bearing gifts is a difficult choice to make.
Contrary to common perception, these girls are not necessarily poor, Waithaka pointed out. "Its so sad to see them selling their destinies for trivial things such as clothes, a better type of sanitary pads and fast-food meals," she added.
Rose Gawaya, regional gender advisor for the international NGO, OXFAM, agrees. "The original concept of the sugar daddy came from a middle class setting."
"Most of these girls are just looking for affirmation, someone to tell them they are beautiful and someone to build their self-esteem," Waithaka said.
But for many poor girls, this may be the only way to support themselves and their families. According to Gawaya, Southern Africa's recent humanitarian crisis had driven many young girls to commercial sex work or cross-generational relationships.
"These are the girls who are looking for the bare necessities to ensure their survival - food to feed themselves and the rest of their families," Waithaka said.
Family pressure to provide financial support can also compel young women to engage in these relationships.
"Young women actively seek partners who are willing to spend money ... and often initiate relationships with older men," the PSI research brief noted.
"It's a planned thing. The girl goes out there and positions herself in a place where she knows she will get the man. They don't see themselves as victims," Waithaka said.
She admitted, however, that dire circumstances often put girls in this position. "There is always a bigger picture - we can't paint them as villains, but we can't see them as innocents either," she said.
Gawaya stresses that this is all about power and authority, with teenage boys and girls involved in these relationships on an unequal footing.
"The sugar daddy or mommy is in a better position, and is therefore able to entice the young girl or boy. It is actually exploitation. I don't think children can be labelled as instigators in this situation," she said.
Busi and her friends were growing restless, the discussion was becoming uncomfortable. They said they were reluctant to be identified because "people will think we are doing these things".
Although everyone agrees it is a common practice, cross-generational relationships are not often addressed in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns, despite a growing awareness that they are driving much of the epidemic.